Leaders Can Live in the Mess of Learning

The heartbeat of education lives inside the walls of schools. Within those walls you can find stories of kids and teachers in the mess of learning. You will watch students, teachers, and staff buzzing about the halls and classrooms igniting discussion, cultivating curiosity, instilling joy, leading with empathetic hearts and smiling through it all. The epicenter of those learning spaces will captivate and inspire you to listen more intently. You will see new things and look through lenses you may have not considered before. You don’t have to search for the big things to see good things happen. The small things matter too.

I often reminisce about my days in the classroom. When I became an educator, I wanted to show my students what they were capable of. I wanted to help them find their voices. I wanted to provide a sense of hope that would continuously stir within. Inside my classroom walls, you could find stories and moments of impact that shaped the educator I am today. Those stories turned into sound bites, short episodes of lessons I’d later learn from. They were opportunities to personalize learning experiences and were a bridge that connected me to people. In those walls, I learned to embrace my own gifts so I could help my students find theirs.

A few weeks ago I stood by the fence over looking the football field at my hometown’s homecoming game. As I gazed onto the field, I thought about how just a couple of years ago, I was teaching in the middle school walls that were just a few feet away. Within those walls, I learned a lot of new things. But most of all, I learned patience, flexibility, and perseverance during a year of uncertainty. Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by two familiar voices. “Mrs. Kaufman, Mrs. Kaufman, is that you?” one boy yelled trying to catch his breath. I quickly turned around. Although I was startled by the unexpected encounter, I could feel my face smiling big. “Oh my goodness, Ben and Sebastian, here you are. It’s so good to see you! How have you been?” I replied as I saw them both smiling back at me. The other boy looking taller than ever responded. “Mrs. Kaufman we were in your reading class in 7th-grade. What happened to you last year? We were looking for you in 8th-grade when we needed to see a smile.” In that moment, my heart melted. Was it a small thing like a smile all it took to leave a legacy in their hearts? That was the year I left to embark on my leadership journey in another school district. This special interaction made me think about a sentiment shared in the book Because of A Teacher, Volume II. In the book, George Couros said, “What is amazing about education as a profession is that what you do impacts people who later go out and impact people. In this sense, teachers will never get the recognition they deserve because their impact can be infinite.”

Now that I am a district administrator, the opportunities to have an infinite impact and influence on students can become more limited (if I let it). So I regularly ask myself, How can I find ways to continuously expand my impact and broaden my influence as an instructional leader? What helps me process this question is that I have come to understand that impact and influence lives in every level of an organization. It’s the people in systems that have the potential to do amazing things.

As I continue on my journey and evolve into the instructional leader I wish to become, I have committed to the following ideas to help expand my impact and broaden my influence within the walls of schools:

  1. Be Human-Centered – Connections are cornerstones to our hearts. Recognize that educators are people first and learn what they care about outside the walls of education.
  2. Lead with Empathy – Meet people where they are in conversations. Guide and support their journey by being less reactive and more responsive to their needs.
  3. Provide Thoughtful Feedback – Use a coaching lens and ask questions that will lead people to finding their own answers to challenges. Then give feedback that will elevate their ideas “It sounds like you…” and “I am wondering if…” HERE are some coaching stems to help guide conversations.
  4. Recognize the Gifts in Others – Listen to people attentively. You will discover their strengths and areas of expertise. Develop those gifts and capitalize on their knowledge to cross-pollinate ideas across an organization.
  5. Keep Kids at the Heart of Decision-Making- When you keep the conversations focused on what is best for kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual growth, your impact and influence will touch the lives of many students even though you may not directly work with them. 

So, if you are like me and are continuing on your leadership path, consider embracing the ideas above and opening the doors to schools and classrooms. You will find so much goodness living inside the walls. Although you do not have a classroom to call your own, you can still find ways to step into the mess of learning. When you miss the moments of impact you experienced with your own students, take a leap of faith and open a classroom door. Recently, I walked through one and was greeted by a teacher with the warmest, most genuine smile. “Look at that smile,” I said. The teacher replied “Well, it matches yours, Lauren.” Once again, I was reminded that the small things matter. You have influence, your impact is infinite and your smile and the hope you instill will live on.

Books Invite New Beginnings

Beginnings

There are seasons in our lives where we find ourselves starting from the beginning. Beginnings aren’t always easy, but they can be beautiful. Beginnings can put you into uncomfortable places, but they can push you to be a better version of yourself. Beginnings can be scary, but they can open doors to new opportunities you didn’t know existed.

New beginnings live in the evolution of our personal and professional lives. They are a constant reminder that there are new people, places, and ideas that you didn’t know existed. There is always a door to a new beginning, you just have to choose to walk through it to find the goodness on the other side.

Walking Through a New Door

Recently, I walked through a new door when I began a new role as a district leader. The most challenging part of beginning a new role is not instantly knowing all the amazing educators and students in the way you would like. There is a bit of a different feeling as a building administrator; I felt like I was handed a built- in family. And while I continue the transition from building to district leader, I am continuously searching for avenues to connect with the new people who’ve been placed in my path.

This transition led me to ask…when making a shift to a new season in your life, How can you keep hope in reach when embarking on new beginnings? Can a collection of small intentional moves have the potential to make a bigger impact? One of the small moves I have invested in is using my passion for books, love of literacy, and learning to build and strengthen connections. Books can build bridges that manifest relationships and instill joy in ourselves and others. I am in a constant pursuit of searching for new, engaging titles that can generate excitement and cultivate curiosity. Books can also be entry points for storytelling. Stories are windows into our personal experiences and the stories in the books you share will allow you to discover beautiful connections. When given the opportunity to transact with small moments from books, you can use them to illuminate pieces of your own life with others. 

While thinking about the impact books have had on connecting with people in my personal and professional life, I became committed to never leaving my office for the day without a few engaging picture books in my bag. When visiting buildings, there is magic in retrieving a book from my bag. That simple gesture ignites new conversations, brings unexpected smiles to faces, and levels the playing field in any context. By simply holding and talking about a book, I have generously received invitations to read aloud in classrooms. It is an honor to be invited into a classroom, and when I am, here are the four things I will do:

Set the Stage – When introducing a book to a teacher and class, I retrieve the book from my bag and introduce it as if it’s the most magical gift you have ever unwrapped! You may say: “You will never believe the book I have in my hands! Can you guess what it is? There is something about this book that makes me want to read more! Who wants to see and hear the magic that lives inside this book?”

Tell a Book Story: Tell the students the story about how you found the book. Kids LOVE your stories and they want to hear about how that book made its way to their classroom. You may say, “I pre-ordered this magical book on Amazon and I was rushing to the mailbox every day waiting to hold it and then give the book the biggest hug I’ve ever seen. I must have read it 10 times! Can you believe it?”

Be in the Epicenter of the Action – Be a part of the classroom community. I personally love sitting with the students and their teacher on the rug (if there is one). We are all teachers and learners and will grow from the experience together. This shows the students that you are reading not just TO them, but WITH them! You may say, “Can I sit with you today? I want to read this book together! This is OUR book! And there will be places in this book where I will need your help!”

Make it Interactive– Bring the kids and adults in the room into the world of the book. One way you can do this is by using the “I say, you say” technique. Chunk words in the text in phrases and have the students echo them back! If there is repetition in the book, have the students say the word or phrase that is next in the text. They will start echoing your expressive tone and voice. You can use a gesture like pointing to the word or phrase that is coming up and then putting your hand to your ear! This gives them the signal to say the words they know will be next. Also, have them act out the emotions of characters with you! This all helps with developing fluency, reading with expression, developing reading identities, and understanding the character’s attributes and impact on the story. Plus, kids love it that they are able to read the book with you!

Recently, after I read The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster by Mo Willems in a classroom, the teacher generously shared that they learned a few new things from the interactive read aloud we experienced together. It made my day. But, the truth is, before I even sat on the rug with her students, I learned from this teacher too… It felt like the season of a new beginning and a new connection was made.

Books Invite New Beginnings

Books invite new beginnings. They can open doors to invitations to be part of classroom communities. When you walk through that door, you can begin in the place you are, and start moving toward where you want to be. Any moment is the perfect time to walk through the door. There will be goodness on the other side, especially when you bring a book…

4 Interconnected Ideas to Consider When Planning For a New School Year

In New York, educators and students are halfway through the summer. You may have needed this space and time to reconnect with what you value, recharge to nourish the spirit and joy for what you do, and reflect on the past to plan for a better future. Educators are aware that there will never be enough time to meet the demands and all that is required in our daily personal and professional lives. In fact, I have never met an educator who didn’t appreciate how precious time is and work towards using it to deliver above and beyond the norm.

Leaning into Time

Leaning into time allows you to manifest the right personal energy that is a key ingredient to feeling connected to your work. Energy is contagious and your engagement in your work is a choice. As you continue to breathe and think about how to approach a new school year with intention, passion, and purpose, you will also continue to keep your most precious stakeholders at the forefront of your planning. Make no mistake about it, the curriculum will always be there, but how can you give your learners access to it without putting THEM first?

A New School Year Breathes Life

To me, a new school year breathes life into awakening opportunities to let your learners guide your planning. In George Couros’ latest blogpost, 4 Things to Consider When Moving Into a New Position, he shares, “The beautiful thing about new beginnings is that you not only get a fresh start but so does everyone around you with whom you interact.” That said, I am going to share some ideas to think about as you embark on a new season of being the legacy-building, great leader and educator who has the ability to open hearts and minds while giving new meaning to what it means to be a compassionate, empathetic citizen and learner. My hope is that these ideas will encourage leaders and teachers to ask the following questions that were inspired by George Couros:

Would I want to be an administrator or teacher in the building/district I serve? 

Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?

4 Interconnected Ideas to Consider When Planning For a New School Year

CLICK HERE to print the infographic for discussion.

1 . Connection is a Learning Tool

When we become more worried about data than the students who are represented by that data, we have lost our way. Before assessing my students and their learning in any capacity, I have always considered getting to know them as human beings first. You will be creating a variety of learning experiences for students over the course of the year so why not get their input as to what inspires and motivates them as people? Capitalize on their strengths and show them that their voice matters. When I was in the classroom, these 5 questions created by George Couros helped me develop learner profiles that gave me insight beyond what any other data could provide for me. The answers to these questions will glean vital information about your learners and support you in crafting learning activities with your students’ interests in mind. Revisit these questions to empower students to own their learning. They can answer them a few times over the course of the year so you can see their evolution as human beings and learners. By embedding their thinking into questions you may ask them in the future, will help foster meaningful relationships and establish trust. For school leaders, you may consider flipping these questions to ask your faculty and staff. For example, What are the qualities you look for in a leader?

George Couros 5 Questions

2. Recognize Your Core Values 

During my recent administrative retreat with my school district, Laura Campbell, John Maxwell certified leadership and life coach, invited our administrative team to explore and identify our top 5 core values. Susan M. Heathfield’s definition of core values is, “Core values are traits or qualities that are not just worthwhile, they represent an individual’s or an organization’s highest priorities, deeply held beliefs, and core, fundamental driving forces. They are the heart of what your organization and its employees stand for in the world.” By connecting to yourself, you will be able to connect better to everyone else you serve. The relationship we have with ourselves is a mirror. When you see who you are and know what you value, you can better serve and understand others. Why is this important in education? Knowing the people who surround you, can help you understand how to respond to their strengths and can provide you with essential tools to support their needs. Let’s be clear, if you are working in an educational organization, consider yourself a leader for kids and colleagues. You will always be making shifts in your leadership. Having a plan and knowing what you and others bring to the table will help others do great things. CLICK HERE to find an activity that can help you, your colleagues, and students identify their core values. CLICK HERE to find a list of core values to choose from when engaging in the activity.

3. Instill Hope and Joy

I don’t remember a specific lesson a teacher taught me. What I remember is the joy, the fun, the hope a teacher instilled in my heart…this Edutopia tweet caught my attention:

How can we bring hope and joy into our schools and classrooms? This could be a relevant activity to invite your students and staff to engage in in order to gain a deeper understanding of what others perceive the purpose of school to be. Additionally, to me, bringing hope and joy into our spaces begins and ends with the feeling of gratitude. In the Edutopia article, 3 Gratitude Practices That Don’t Involve Journaling by Lainie Rowell, she shares gratitude practices you can implement in your classroom spaces tomorrow. These practices include a gratitude wall that helps to appreciate the good in others, expressing positive affirmations to see the good in ourselves, and a Notice-think-feel-do activity that helps us to cultivate gratitude as a habit.
You might ask, what do these gratitude activities have to do with hope and joy? My answer is that when we live grateful lives, we can embody hope and feel the joys life has to offer. Hope gives us and our students the direction, faith, and guidance to acknowledge where we are, where we are going, and how we will get there.

4. Reimagine Learning Spaces

I get the best ideas for writing while driving in the car. I generate and nurture those ideas while laying on the couch. Then, I start my writing at the dining room table and after that, I move back to the couch. Sometimes I will take my laptop outside when I have writer’s block to try and develop some new ideas. What does this tell you about the way I think and learn best? Now, let’s step into the shoes of our learners and ask yourselves the following:

Where do learners get their best ideas? 

Where can they grow and nurture them? 

How can you explore opportunities that allow your colleagues and students to create deeper connections to their learning environments?

During the administrative retreat I mentioned above, the inspiring and engaging Jolene Levin, CEO at NorvaNivel, leading designer, manufacturer, and supplier of collaborative learning environments empowered our team to think about whether we are setting up our learning spaces to merely just accommodate instead of engaging our learners. Think about it, years ago, you may have walked into a classroom to observe and work on desks arranged in traditional rows with uncomfortable chairs pushed underneath. Especially at the elementary level, learners were and still might be expected to sit and learn in that space for extended periods of time whether they were/are comfortable or not. Now there are many other options for learning spaces that can support students in having positive social, emotional, and academic learning outcomes. I also understand that there are organizations that may not have the resources to acquire the materials needed for more creative and flexible learning spaces. But, it can start with a conversation about its benefits. As Jolene shared, “A facility’s intellectual and physical quality lets every stakeholder know they are worthy.”

How do you plan to organize your learning spaces for your students?

We were encouraged to use an Empathy Mapping activity to put ourselves in the hearts and minds of our learners. Definition: An empathy map is a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to 1) create a shared understanding of user needs, and 2) aid in decision making. CLICK HERE to learn more about Empathy Mapping. When engaging in this activity and conversation, think about the following questions:

What are the user’s goals? What do they all need to do? What jobs do they need to get done? How will they know they are successful?

CLICK HERE to access an Edutopia article titled, The Architecture of Ideal Learning Environments to learn more about modern school design and its impact on student learning.

Moving Forward

As you begin to think about how you will approach a new school year with intention, passion, and purpose, remember, the curriculum will ALWAYS be there. When you keep your students, the most precious stakeholders at the heart of your decision-making, your impact and influence can expand beyond the school season you live in. Putting students first is time well spent. Lean into that time and manifest the energy needed to stay connected and engaged in the work. It’s worth it.

Looking Back to Move Forward: 6 Pieces of Advice I Give Myself and Share with Others

This will be my 17th year in education. When I take a mental journey back in time from my first to most current years, I can vividly recall a collection of monumental moments that have paved the way to the various destinations I’d learn, live, and grow in. When I close my eyes, I can see the people who planted courageous seeds of hope on my path to self and professional discovery. These signposts guided me to serve in the roles of teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school reading specialist, instructional coach, assistant principal, and now, director of literacy K-12.

The Roles We Serve in Are More Than Stepping Stones

Some may perceive each role you serve in over the course of your career as a stepping stone to get to the next. I don’t. The roles we serve in are more than stepping stones; they are mirrors that reflect your evolution of the practitioner you have become and are continuously striving to be. The learning and development you have experienced over time has strengthened and sharpened your empathetic and instructional lenses, allowing you to better serve others. 

Looking Back to Move Forward

Recently, as I was packing up my personal items from my assistant principal office and preparing for my new role as the Director of Literacy, my mind was reliving the advice I’d give my first year teacher self. In the book, Because of a Teacher Volume II (BOAT), by George Couros, he shared that, “Looking back is the key to moving forward.” I agree, looking back is an opportunity to approach every endeavor with the strength and courage you will need to embrace a new journey. You can relive your collection of experiences and embrace them as more than stepping stones; they are bridges that have been built to lead you to the new beginnings awaiting on the horizon. 

As you prepare for a new school year, have you thought about the advice you would give yourself to continuously pave pathways of hope and promise to a long meaningful career?

I’d like to share some of the advice I’ve not only given myself and others, but was beautifully captured and memorialized in Because of A Teacher, Volume II by George Couros and a team of dedicated educators. This advice has helped me stay grounded, honor the past, and plan for the future:

1. Leverage Your Gifts

In BOAT II Couros adds, “The best way to help others find their gifts is by embracing your own.” 

From novice to veteran educator, we all have gifts to share with colleagues and students. As you continue to breathe and reflect on your well-served break, celebrate the gifts you have brought to your students and colleagues. Create some space to think about how your gifts have transformed practices and impacted learners as the educational landscape continues to change. Recognize where your colleagues and students are in their learning spaces and how the work you’ve accomplished over time has transformed and elevated their practices because of the gifts you’ve shared. There are times we don’t give ourselves enough credit for our own work when we are trying to elevate others. DO THAT! When you acknowledge the great work you have done, you will even be better at amplifying the talents of others!

2. Empower Colleagues and Kids

In BOAT 2 Couros adds  “Help kids to find their voices, not to replicate yours.”

When I look back in time, I recognize that there were times that I may have been encouraging colleagues and students to solely listen to MY voice and perspectives and expected them to emulate it. YES, empower yourself to share your perspectives, but also encourage and empower others to use their own voices and own their learning. Listening to those voices may confirm your own ideas and/or shift your thinking. You will not always agree. THAT’S OKAY! Overtime, I realized that I could create less work for myself by opening opportunities to actively listen and trust my colleagues and learners to use their voices to implement new ideas to strengthen the spaces they are in. By doing this, I took the pressure off myself and modeled the power of using the room to collectively plan, create, and innovate!

3. Everyone is a Leader

In BOAT II, Latonya Goffney shares, “Leadership matters at all levels. It takes all of us working together to deliver on our promise to students. You do not need to have the title of principal or superintendent to be a leader. Every teacher is a leader of students. When you see something that isn’t right, do something about it.”

This deeply resonates. I grew up with two parents who were educators. They worked tirelessly to model how we all have the ability to lead from any seat to do what’s best for people regardless of the role you serve in. I can still hear my Dad clearly say, “Lauren, we salute the person, not the title.” Our colleagues and kids are watching. Be the person who advocates for them and gives them what they need and deserve. Be the person that lets people lead at all levels to optimize student growth. Be the person who lets others stand in their element and lets them shine!

4. Embrace Humanness

In BOAT 2, Couros brilliantly states, “Students want to connect with people who are teachers, not teachers who happen to be people.”

The best teachers aren’t just teaching their content or pushing people to consume knowledge, they are teaching people how to learn and navigate life. Model the humanness you expect to see. Being human makes the world a better place. Being vulnerable, making mistakes and owning them can make a person more approachable and endearing. Being a human can empower learners to make mistakes, identify problems, and work collectively to seek out solutions. Goethe said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” YOU have the power to bring out the best in people. Let them see your core and embrace your humanness.

5. You Mirror the People You Surround Yourself With

In BOAT 2, Mike Kleba said, “Surround yourself with people who cheer you on and make you better. The people you surround yourself with, in and out of school, can either be a fountain or a drain, so consider which one you are to others.”

In the last several years, I have reflected on all of the people who have been a part of my journey. I have noticed that the people who remain a constant in my life are the ones who make me feel good about myself as a professional and human being. Why is that? They recognize my successes, my strengths, give me honest and genuine feedback, and cheer me on. They show gratitude for our relationship through different avenues of communication. They have stood by my side regardless of the role I have served in and are people who continuously push my thinking. Those are the people I want to be around. And when I need it most, I look in the mirror and feel a sense of calm when I can visualize them looking back at me. Surround yourself with people who make your light brighter and your smiles bigger!

6. You Add Value to Education: Build Your Network

In BOAT 2, Dr. Latonya Goffney shared, “Multiply your network because I believe strongly in networking and the power of individuals to sharpen one another- the way iron sharpens iron.” 

In the book, The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros says, “Being in spaces where people actively share ideas makes us smarter.” Social media and networking beyond the walls of your organizations can provide a space to connect with other educators who can share our mindsets, but also push our thinking to create new and better ideas. It is in these spaces where we can get inspiration from other educators and organizations outside of education to try something we haven’t thought of before. Creating a culture of learning and innovation happens when meaningful connections are made beyond the walls of the organizations we live in. It is within these spaces that new possibilities are discovered to benefit learners who have the potential to make change today and in the future!

Moving Forward

Education is a journey. If you’re not reflecting on the past to shift your practices for the future, you may be limiting your impact. Whether you remain in your current role or you are serving in a new one, these core ideas can be a framework that guides and supports you to dig deeper and find the courage to embrace the journey ahead and enhance your outlook on education. When you look back to move forward you will see that all of your time in education has been more than a stepping stone, it was time well spent developing the educator you were, are, and continue to be.

Educators Do Great Things

“The influence of our teachers is indelibly woven into the fabric of our lives.” This is the first sentence in chapter 1 of Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched in the Classroom. Last weekend, as I was packing up my family’s belongings from a weekend trip, I was listening to Sean Gaillard’s #PrincipalLinerNotes podcast where he highlighted Julie’s book and her research around the impact of teachers. That inspiring conversation led me to reading more of Julie’s words where she goes on to ask the question, “Is there a teacher you remember? Not just the teacher’s name, but specific things about him or her?” I paused, and thought deeply after reading those words. It is because my answer is yes, there are many teachers who have left an everlasting impact on my heart and have paved the way for the person I am and the person I am still striving to be. 

Family Roots in Education

I have known for a long time that teaching is an incredibly important job. I have always known this because I come from a family of educators. My grandfather was a law professor at a local college. I can vividly remember him talking about his students with profound pride, reading their writing, and being immersed in providing them with specific feedback that stretched across a span of hours. He did this because he wanted to unlock their potential and push them to be reflective thinkers and develop new ideas that could make a positive impact on the world. His home bookshelves were stacked from floor to ceiling with all of the books he authored and read. He was deeply passionate and committed to his students. My parents were beloved teachers in the community I grew up in; my Dad a retired English teacher and my Mom, a retired special education teacher. From childhood into adulthood, I observed them spending countless hours cultivating connections with students, families, and colleagues, reading papers, providing meaningful feedback, and creating engaging lessons. I can’t remember a day being in public without students rushing towards them to spark conversations that were rooted in stories of gratitude and appreciation for the legacy they left behind. “You were the best teacher I have ever known!” and “You helped me realize who I needed and wanted to be.” or just a simple, “Thank you for everything.” My sister is also an elementary educator. The love she has for teaching and learning, and her students’ unwavering success is palpable. Can you imagine what happens when we are all in the same room together? Yes, we talk about one of our greatest passions, teaching and the influence we hope to have had and have on the field of education.

Keeping Close Proximity

Although I no longer have my own classroom, one of my favorite things to do as an administrator is to walk into classrooms and talk to students about their learning. My friend Meghan Lawson recently wrote a blog post titled, An Underutilized Resource where she shared, “At the end of the day, I know this: my best days are spent listening to the people closest to the work. Our students. Our staff. Proximity matters.” My greatest joy is talking to teachers and students and staying close to that work. That investment in time is important and I wholeheartedly cherish all of those moments. Then, there are days I simply can’t do that as much, and in those moments I wonder about the connections, learning, and joy I may be missing.

Educators Do Great Things

You see, I have been surrounded by great educators since the beginning of time and I’d like to share that even during the most challenging times in education, I am watching and hearing educators doing great things. I am watching great educators remain deeply committed to their work; they are keeping students, colleagues, and community at the heart of all they do. I am watching the joy in students’ faces as they make new connections, ask questions, wonder, think, explore, use accountable talk to grow their thinking, develop perspectives, and navigate the learning process. I am watching educators commit to an infinite learning mindset. They are collaborating, communicating, seeking opportunities for professional growth to build capacity within, and meet the needs of all of their learners. I am watching educators ask for feedback from students and colleagues that enable them to create, innovate, and shift their approaches to instruction. I am watching educators navigate challenges that arise and proactively find solutions. I am watching educators use relationships as a form of intervention. They interact with students in supportive ways while maintaining high expectations that develop the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of all students.

Magical Moments

The other day I was talking to students about the themes in their books. During this time, they were making connections about books they have previously read to the excerpts they were currently analyzing. Their teacher and I were not taking part in the interactions for quite a while; we didn’t have to. The students were joyfully facilitating the conversation, while adding onto each other’s thinking. As I watched an authentic dialogue that was blanketed in critical thinking, responsibility, and respect for one another’s perspectives, I couldn’t help but think about the remarkable ways teachers shape the lives of students. I couldn’t help but think about the conditions the teacher created that opened the door to these magical moments. It is moments like this that will live in the mind memory boxes of students for a lifetime. These are the moments that will be courageously unwrapped in the right time, in the right place, with the right people. 

I’ll Always Be a Teacher

The greatest educators I have ever known invest the time in building classroom community, instilling confidence, and providing the tools and spaces for learners to think, share, speak, listen, and thrive. When I finally got the opportunity to share my heart and some of my own thoughts about the concept of theme with the class, many hands relentlessly started flying into the air with questions for me. It seemed as though these students were curious about my history as a learner and educator. I thought back to Julie Hasson’s words, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” Could it be that because the teacher created the conditions that value a learner and curiosity driven environment that I was invited to share my own ideas? One student thoughtfully asked, “Mrs. Kaufman, how do you know so much about books? I didn’t know that you were a teacher too.” After sharing a bit of my background, and thinking about the impact and influence my own teachers made, I smiled and responded, “I’ll always be a teacher.”

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Impact Moves With You

Collecting Experiences 

We live a collection of memories and experiences that have been accumulated over the course of time. Within every role we serve, we are afforded opportunities that invite us to think about the educators we were and who we want to be. Over time, we establish and develop relationships, garner a multitude of teaching and learning practices, take part in numerous conversations, and make an impact on countless families, colleagues, and students who were destined to know us. As we proceed with our lives, we encounter new opportunities and people who are waiting to meet us. It can be exciting to think about a team of people we have not yet met, but will eventually become a constant in our lives. Or perhaps there will be people who enter your life for a short time; they serve as signposts who guide and create pathways that can lead to opportunities you have yet to know to exist. Every experience you will ever endure leads to the type of educator you wish to become. 

My Last Year in the Classroom

I have been thinking quite often about last year, the year that would become my last in the classroom. I certainly didn’t realize I’d be back in the classroom during a pandemic and one of the most challenging years in educational history. After all, for 5 years before that, I was serving as an instructional coach, a position I loved and adored. With change resting on my shoulders and 14 years at the elementary level, I requested to make a move to the middle school where I would be teaching literacy to learners in grades 6-8. Taking on new challenges has always been a part of my growth and development as a human being, educator, learner, leader, and practitioner. It is one of the myriads of ways I stay on the cutting edge of best practice, grow my skill set, and elevate others. I thought about how exciting it would be to take all of the learning I had ever been gifted and share it in new spaces. Little did I know, I would be sharing and growing my learning in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously and it would be my last opportunity to make an impact in that very space.

Cultures of Learning Are Built on Connection

In what seemed like an instant, I learned that all of my knowledge about literacy, had no bearing or influence on my students unless I could create authentic ways to cultivate connection. They were not interested in my content expertise; they were interested in the person I was, the person I am, and the person I was still striving to be. They were interested in me getting to know who they were, who they are, and who they wanted to be. If you want to develop a culture of learning, communication, collaboration, and empowerment, you must show your students who you are and make an effort to invest in their hearts. 

Small Moves Can Make Big Impact

I keep thinking about what my friend Meghan Lawson says, “Small moves can make a big impact.” On one of my last days in the classroom, I read my students Only One You by Linda Kranz. The book inspired me to use all I had learned about my students and write them a personal note of inspiration and gratitude. With that, I also left them a special rock with the one word I felt embodied who they are and who they will continue to be. I remember my student Steven picking up his rock “Happiness” and studying it carefully. “Mrs. Kaufman, do you really think I can bring happiness to people wherever I go?” I replied, “Steven, your happiness is contagious and will bring joy to whomever you meet. Your happiness will change the world.”

Impact Moves with You

And just like that, it’s less than a year later…I am now serving as an assistant principal with a new team of people I was destined to know. The last interaction I had with Steven was just one moment in the collection of small moves I employed that would later influence the school leader I am learning to become. I often reflect on the small moves I am choosing to make to connect with people. One of the best parts of my new role is visiting classrooms to spend time with students and teachers. Recently, a student named James delightfully approached me with a piece of writing he wanted to share. One sentiment he included was, “When you walk by, say hi to Mrs. Kaufman. Don’t you want to make her day? Mrs. Kaufman is wonderful because she makes sure everyone has a good day.” As I read James’ piece of writing, it brought me back to the exchange I had with Steven. It made me think about how Steven’s contagious happiness became a part of me. It seemed as though I was inadvertently bringing that same happiness to James. Perhaps I have been carrying many years of my students’ and colleagues’ positive attributes with me. At that moment, I asked myself…”How can we continuously recognize that a collection of small actions have the potential to make someone else’s day better?”

Who is the Educator You Wish to Become?

When you make an effort to continually build connections with people, it becomes an intrinsic act of gratitude. In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he says, “Your life bends in the direction of your habits. Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become.” When I reflect on my past and present experiences, I often ask myself, “Who is the leader you wish to become Lauren?” My answer is “I wish to become the leader I always needed.” No matter where your journey takes you, your actions create a collection of experiences that can positively impact others. Your impact moves with you.

3 Ways to Shift from Consumption to Creation

The start of a school year is a time for new beginnings, cultivating connections, navigating various systems, understanding policies and procedures, digesting new curricula, and applying new learning we encounter in the ever changing educational landscape we live in. Sometimes we become so consumed with taking in so much newness and information that the experience itself can cause barriers to pathways of innovation and creation.

There are moments when we become so overwhelmed with the feeling of consumption that our brains are working in overtime to process multiple ideas simultaneously. So what could be getting in the way of our ability to shift from consumption to creation? According to Barbara Oakley, PhD and Terrence Sejnowski, PhD, authors of Learning How To Learn: A Guide For Kids and Teens, there are times our brains need to lose concentration to think more clearly and problem solve. During those moments when we are less focused on learning, our ability to apply something new increases. 

Neuroscientists have discovered that there are two different modes our brains require that are important to the learning process: focus mode and diffuse mode

Oakley and Dejnowski define the modes in their book:

Focus Mode: “When you’re in focus mode, it means that you’re paying attention. For example, you might be trying to figure out a math problem. Or you might be looking at or listening to your teacher… when you’re focusing you’re putting specific parts of the brain to work.”

Diffuse Mode: “Diffuse mode is when your mind is relaxed and free. You’re thinking about nothing in particular. You’re in diffuse mode when you’re daydreaming or doodling just for fun. If your teacher tells you to concentrate, you may have slipped into diffuse mode.”

When we are in the process of learning something new, we focus and ignite those parts of the brain that initiate the learning process. In diffuse mode, there is an invisible potential to the endless possibilities that lead to making connections that forge your ability to imagine and create.

How can we create conditions for educators and students to shift between focus and diffuse modes to ensure they can apply learning in meaningful ways?

  1. Preserve time to reflect on roadblocks to creation with colleagues/peers. 

According to Adam Grant, author of Think Again, it is important to possess the qualities of confident humility. Acknowledge your struggles, know what you don’t know, and share your learning and questions with others. Provide opportunities to have protected, intentional collaborative time to discuss potential roadblocks to internalizing and applying new learning. Talk with colleagues or peers about what is causing your brain congestion. Thinking out loud with partners who may value different perspectives can provide new insights that help connect the dots to previous and new learning. Additionally, you may choose to use this time to shift from learner to teacher. Try teaching your new learning to your colleagues/peers in an effort to make your learning stick.

2. Engage in activities that support fluid movement between focus and diffuse modes. 

Be mindful about stepping away from routines that put you into a constant state of consuming new information. Engaging in some mindless activities can help you weave together new learning that can ultimately lead to pathways of creation. Turning up the volume on your music as you drive, taking a walk, drawing, painting, and/or watching your favorite movie or television show can breathe life into new ideas. There is another important activity to embrace: getting a good night’s sleep! This is when your brain gets an upgrade and you unintentionally rehearse what you’ve learned. When you are learning something new and have revisited the concepts several times, sleep on it! Then, attempt pulling those new ideas out of your mind the next day. It gets easier to recall and apply that new information each time.

3. Pause to observe the details in the world around you. 

Actively observing and noticing the details in the world around you can help you make connections that spark new ideas. Watching people, nature, and interactions can help you build neural structures for learning and application. You may consider putting yourself into a completely different environment than your norm as this can disrupt your thinking and help you develop new and better ideas. As you’re reflecting on your observations, invite curiosity and ask yourself questions about what you see. What environments inspired you to connect the puzzle pieces of new learning to visualize and apply new and beautiful understandings to the real world?

When you feel like your learning is in overdrive and you are looking for ways to bypass the traffic, make an effort to move from focus to diffuse mode by pausing and reaching out to a thinking partner, turning on your music, and appreciating the details in the world around you. Eventually, signposts in the roads will appear, offering a new direction to creation, development, and growth.